The Future of Law Practice Will Look a Lot Like its Present
Lawyers are, quite clearly, jealous of all the disruptive innovation happening around us. We want in on the action. Heck, I want in on the action. My practice would be so much cooler if it were more like a Web 2.0 startup.
But law practice is — generally for very good reasons — anchored by the rules of professional conduct. Anchored, as in “a thing that can be relied on for support, stability, or security,” not something that weighs us down. The rules are in place to protect clients, not to protect lawyers’ monopoly on legal work.
Not everyone sees things that way.
As Stephanie West Allen, who writes Idealawg, says, “I think there are two professions now, both calling themselves lawyers.” Or, as Brian Tannebaum succinctly puts it in a comment on Simple Justice, “lawyers who are here for clients, and lawyers who are here for themselves.”
I think Allen, Greenfield, and Tannebaum are fundamentally right, but I don’t think there is a simple dichotomy. Instead, there is a spectrum. Bloggers like Greenfield idealize the profession, making it sound like lawyers who take their own wants and needs into consideration are bad lawyers. In reality, that is neither true nor desirable — and I think Allen, Greenfield, and Tannebaum would agree. If you have a law practice that makes you happy, you will probably be a more-effective lawyer. In other words, business decisions that result in the best client service will sometimes (perhaps often) be those that also increase your own satisfaction with your law practice. And, sometimes, business decisions (like buying that iPad Scott loves to throw out as a red herring) will be basically irrelevant to the service you provide to your clients.
But this is not always true. Sometimes (perhaps often), you will have to make business decisions that basically suck, because they will be better for your clients. And you do have to, because that is what law practice means. If not, you will find yourself at the other end of the spectrum in short order. If you start making decisions based on what will make you happy instead of seeking to maximize the service you provide to your clients, you start to become the other kind of lawyer, which is the kind of lawyer everyone can do without.
The tricky part comes when you start convincing yourself that you can have it all, and there are plenty of coaches and consultants out there who are eager to sell you that dream. You cannot have it all. Not unless you are fooling yourself and screwing your clients, anyway. (“But your clients are happy with the misspelled, inadequate forms you hired Florinese lawyers to prepare!” say the coaches — just not in so many words. The problem with this reasoning should be obvious.)
The spectrum, in other words, can look like a slippery slope. It is easy to see the benefits of outsourcing some things, like reception, and how they can actually improve the service you are able to provide to clients. Outsourcing your marketing, though, can be more problematic, but still okay if you take responsibility and do a good job. If you just hand off your marketing, though, you’ve just slipped down the slide. What about taking outsourcing to its “logical” conclusion, and outsourcing your legal work, too? All of a sudden, you are on the wrong side of the spectrum.
That is why the future of law will look a lot like its present. Disruptive innovation usually means changing something fundamental about a product or service. The fundamental aspect of the law that everyone seems to think needs changing is lawyers providing personal, individualized legal help to clients. It doesn’t really matter if you do that with an iPad or with a quill and scroll — if you change the attorney-client nature of law practice, you aren’t practicing law anymore. You have innovated yourself right out of the practice of law.
There can and should be innovation in the law. But unlike tablets and taxis, law practice innovation has to stop when it conflicts with our professional obligations to our clients.